My mother was a complicated piece of business. That reads more harsh than what I meant to write, and I am feeling kindly disposed this morning, so perhaps I will amend that to say that my feelings about my mother are the real complications here.
When I was eleven years old, I couldn’t fathom saying such a thing. My mother was this amazing, radiant being; she was like unto God. I don’t know what, precisely, I based this upon – perhaps nothing at all save a daughter’s faith and devotion that was as yet untested. 20 cats? That’s ok, I loved cats! My mom didn’t drive? No problem, my grandma took us everywhere that we needed to go! No money? Ah, we were happy and well-cared for, who needs money? I recall gazing at her, one evening, rapt, and exclaiming “I can’t imagine ever having a fight with you, mom!” She smiled enigmatically, knowing better.
(When I grew much older and had to divest her dilapidated beach cottage of 20 sick felines and several heartbreakingly unwell dogs; when I got my driver’s license and became my mother’s chauffeur at all hours of the night; when I loaned her money time and again which would never be repaid–that is when my feelings became irreversibly complicated).
However, by the time I was fourteen years old, they were certainly going through some complex changes. My beautiful, brilliant mother was, without a doubt, a raging alcoholic.
I think I have blocked out much of my home-life during my teenage years at this time; I recall going to school, I remember spending time with my boyfriend, I can re-live just about every single moment I ever spent at my first job…but there’s not much I remember about my mother, save surreal flashes of trauma here and there. A Thanksgiving morning when our refrigerator broke down; the kitchen flooded, she had a meltdown and subsequently entered rehab for the first time. 3am early mornings when she cornered my sister and I in a bedroom while she ranted and raged for hours about god knows what, while terrified and confused, we wondered how we would function at school the next day. My senior year of high school when she disappeared for two weeks entirely. These things.
The one thing I can unfailingly conjure up now, twenty years from now, perhaps even on my deathbed, is her scent: Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose.
A scent upon which my grandmother would often remark in disgust “You smell like a funeral parlour!” Tea Rose permeated the fabric of my mother’s clothes and floated around her from room to room in a fragrant cloud. My mother wore exotic, jingling belled anklets which would tinkle and announce her presence as she made her way throughout her home–but Tearose often loudly preceded those tiny chimes.
I purchased a bottle for myself recently, and a week later I am just now able to bring myself to slide the cellophane from the plain, somewhat retro looking brown box and remove the bottle. I’ve been afraid to spray it, not knowing what images and memories the perfume will invoke. Not ready for the the feelings it will inevitably stir up.
Initially somewhat sour and strange, this is an incredibly potent fragrance, that opens chilly and green and bitter. It smells less of rose petals and more, I imagine, of chilled thorns, after a frost. Prickly, biting. Slightly metallic, like the mineral tang of blood, but without the hemic crimson associations.
If it smells like roses, these are not any roses I would wish to be familiar with. These are not lush, inviting midsummer roses in full bloom, nor are they delicate, blushing buds.
This is more like …roses, plucked too young, brainwashed and warped and corrupted and distilled into something astringent and spiky and cruel. If it were a color, it would be an otherwordly emerald, facets glowing strangely, lit from within by distant, verdant starlight.
If you’re patient, though…if you wait long enough…. Let it dry. Give it time. Walk away. It then becomes just a rose. Any rose. All roses. And in it I can smell my mother’s summer cotton night gowns. I can smell the evenings she spent reading us James and the Giant Peach when we were very young. I can smell the soft, warm fur of her favorite Siamese cat.
I can smell the very best memories I have of her, and there is nothing left of the complications.
This is not to say that Tea Rose is a fragrance that I can, or want, to wear. Although I enjoy the scent of roses, I’ve never wanted to smell like one. Tea Rose is a bottle I will take off the shelf when I am having angry thoughts, hateful thoughts, or a bad day when I am blaming my mother’s failures for my own shortcomings.
Just a small spritz, with a light hand.
A reminder that my mother was only human, as am I. We can only be who we are.
And a rose is, after all, just a rose.
What a well written and hard article to read. I don't care for Tea Rose myself, it reminds me of old hippies and ladies who travel in ramshackle microbuses. Which probably reveals some of my own prejudices from growing up. But what a great read on the power of scent and memory and how the two can be forever entwined.
Kudos on putting it out there.
If you can get your hands on a sample, try Kerosene Fragrances Forbidden Pleasures or any of their scents, they remind me of a Bradbury description of exotic and mysterious places under moonlit skies.
oops - unknown pleasures, not forbidden
Yet another beautifully written glimpse into your life. I wish I could turn my complicated feelings from my childhood into such poetry.
this was both so beautiful and so heartbreaking. an incredible thing to read, and i really went there with you. thank you.
Your writing is always so beautiful and evocative. Thank you for sharing this. I am continuously amazed and fascinated by the power of scents and fragrance on our lives and memories. My mother traveled for work a great deal throughout my childhood and would often be gone for weeks at a time. I would sneak into my parents’ bedroom and hang out in her closet, which was a soft nexus of her clothes and the scent of her perfume, which was Halston. So many years have passed since I last smelled it that I couldn’t begin to try describing the scent. Yet I know that if I ever smell it again, I’ll think of my mother immediately.
Your posts about your relationship with your mother give me hope. Thank you for sharing such a personal journey and showing that it is possible to dig this shard of glass out and heal.
So beautifully, beautifully told xx